Saturday, 23 November 2013

Doctor Who: the latest missing episode recovery rumour

TL;DR version: the Mirror is reporting a rumour that the 1st season Doctor Who story “Marco Polo”, currently missing from the archives, has been recovered. I think there are good grounds to believe the rumour and speculate that the episode has come back from Africa with a locally-produced dubbed soundtrack in a language other than English. Detailed analysis follows:

Today, the Mirror is running the story that the seven episodes missing from the first-season Doctor Who story “Marco Polo” (that is, the entire story) have been recovered and will be announced by the BBC as part of the show’s 50th anniversary celebrations.

Rumours of the return of missing Doctor Who episodes are practically unending in fandom, fuelled by a demonstrably inexhaustible supply of wishful thinking. For anyone who’s been paying attention to these for more than a few years, the reaction is usually “I’ll believe it when I see it”. Maybe I’m feeling especially credulous right now because the Mirror was the first mainstream news source to tip the return of nine 5th season episodes about a week before the BBC made an official announcement last month, but there’s something about this story that has the ring of truth about it for me.

The Mirror’s version of events this time around is that the source of “Marco Polo” is:
“a fan who enthusiastically recorded the episodes ... directly from the television onto a 16mm film camera.... The recording - which is a silent film - came out really clearly so it will be easy to watch.... There are already audio recordings of the episodes so the Beeb have had to match everything up. There are some gaps in the audio so it has been a painstaking process.”
There are significant problems with this version of events:
  1. Domestic home-movie cameras were certainly available in 1964, but their film magazines lasted only a few minutes: a typical 100-foot roll would be finished in a little under 3 minutes of shooting. 
  2. Short clips from early Doctor Who stories have indeed been recovered from a fan who shot these snippets on an 8mm camera. These snippets show heavy distortion and flickering. This is to be expected from the technical limitations of this approach, which include the distortion inherent in early television picture tubes, and a mismatch between the frame rate of the TV signal (50 frames-per-second) and the movie camera (24 frames-per-second). Even if somebody had a home-recording of Marco Polo on the technically superior 16mm format, it would still suffer from the same limitations as the 8mm material previously recovered and be in no way “really clear” and “easy to watch”.
 Against that, it also includes elements of truth:

    1. The BBC does hold audio copies of all seven episodes of “Marco Polo”. At least two fans, David Holman and James Russell, had independently made off-air audio recordings of these episodes. 
    2. Of the two sets of recordings, Holman’s are far higher-quality, but, like the Mirror report states, do contain some gaps. Holman edited out the opening and closing titles of the episodes, and the brief reprises of the action that took place at the start of each episode to recap the action of the previous week’s episode. Additionally, Holman’s recording of episode 7 (“Assassin at Peking”) is missing around ten seconds.
    3. Restoring these vintage, amateur audio recordings is challenging because of technical limitations of the original equipment. For example, the speed at which the tape ran through the recorder might not have been exactly to standard, meaning that the recording was slightly faster or slower than real-time. The speed could also vary within a particular tape, due to the changing tension in a reel of tape when it was empty compared to when it was full, as well as the stretchiness of individual tapes. When remastering these episodes for CD release, the Doctor Who Restoration Team has had to make best guesses about the the tape speed, and the results can be approximations only. Attempting to “match everything up” between this audio with a film print would indeed be challenging and “painstaking”.
    4. 16mm recordings of early Doctor Who were indeed made—not by fans, but by the BBC itself for foreign TV stations. The show was originally produced on 2” videotape, but that equipment wasn’t widely available in the BBC’s export markets, so the episodes were transferred to 16mm instead. It is these film recordings on which all 1960s Doctor Who survives—every single one of the videotape masters was erased (and re-used) a long time ago.
    One missing piece of the puzzle: if we assume that 16mm recordings of “Marco Polo” have been recovered, why would they need to be re-synched to  amateur-made audio recordings?  The BBC telerecordings were all sound film, with the audio tracks present right there optically on the film print itself. One obvious possibility is that the the recovered prints are not of the English originals, but are dubs into another language. Past recovery efforts have yielded prints in at least Arabic and Spanish, but in every one of these previous cases, English-language prints were already known to exist. Admittedly, though, no known dubs were made of Marco Polo, and indeed, the special “sound effects and music only” prints on which foreign TV stations relied to dub programs into a local language were never produced for “Marco Polo”. [Afterthought: actually, on further reflection, it seems to me more likely that the need to re-synch the soundtracks is simply a red herring: a case of confusion of the recovered material with the fan-made off-air audio recordings.]

    Complete prints of “Marco Polo” were sent to no fewer than 23 countries at one time or another, but not every country got a fresh print. It was normal practice for the BBC to send out prints to one country after another country had already screened the material and returned it. Matching up the known movements of these prints suggests that probably 10 sets existed for “Marco Polo”: The Destruction of Time website has a great summary.The last known prints in existence were in Ethiopia, where the story was transmitted in 1971. Each of these 23 countries broadcast the story in English.

    Recent Doctor Who recovery efforts have centred on Africa, and the Mirror specifically (but impossibly) named Ethiopia as the source of the Trougton material recovered last month.

    Putting it all together:


    • “Marco Polo” has indeed been recovered.  
    • It exists as a professionally made, 16mm telerecording. 
    • The print is a second-generation print made with a locally produced soundtrack in a language other than English. 
      • Revised opinion: the print is in English and (apart from maybe the need to patch up a damaged audio track here-or-there, there's no need to re-sync the print with the existing off-air audio recordings.
    • The print comes from Ethiopia, and the dub is in Amharic.

    As always, time will tell!

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